Foreign Objects travels the world of international cinema each week to look for films worth visiting. So renew your passport, get your shots, and brush up on the local age of legal consent, this week we’re heading to…
Have you experienced the joy of “Californication” yet? It’s the funny, sexy, raunchy, and surprisingly thoughtful Showtime series starring David Duchovny as Hank Moody. He’s a writer in love with many things… the woman he lost, the daughter he’ll never let go, the power of language, the drugs and alcohol he can’t stop ingesting, and the strangers he can’t stop fucking. He’s simultaneously crass and soulful, and you can’t help but love him both for it and in despite of it. Well imagine he took a trip to Great Britain around 1990, and Hank being Hank he made sure to dip his quill into at least eight of the local inkwells. (That’s a poor attempt at a literary metaphor for sex.) Now imagine those torrid unions resulted in pregnancies…
Which brings us to “Skins” and Hank’s eight illegitimate children. About to start it’s third season (or “series” as the Brits call it), “Skins” airs on channel E4 in the UK as well as BBC America stateside. The show follows eight friends living in Bristol as they deal with the day to day tribulations of being modern-day teens. How they deal exactly differs slightly between them, but you can be sure it involves sex, drugs, immoral behavior, proclamations of love, insecurity, wild antics, and more variations of the word “fuck” than have been uttered by the casts of every Martin Scorsese movie ever made. Episode one introduces the group and it becomes immediately clear that all eight of them are teenage stereotypes. But give them a chance, because very quickly most of them transcend their labels and become living, breathing people that you may have known… or may have been.
Tony (Nicholas Hoult) is the coolest and hottest boy in town, who gets anything he wants and likes to cause trouble when he’s bored. Sid (Mike Bailey) is Tony’s best mate and a virgin, who thinks he’s in love with Tony’s girlfriend but may actually love someone else. Michelle (April Pearson) is Tony’s girlfriend and the hottest girl in town, who accepts his behavior because she can’t stand to be alone. Jal (Larissa Wilson) is Michelle’s best friend and a clarinet player, who is extremely feisty, fiercely loyal, and lonely as hell. Anwar (Dev Patel) is a sex-crazed Muslim, who is torn between his God and his desire to do drugs, drink alcohol, and screw. Cassie (Hannah Murray) is an anorexic and a pill-popper, who is terrified of eating but acutely aware of what she wants. Chris (Joe Dempsie) is a fan of parties and all things pharmaceutical, who has serious family issues and is infatuated with his Psychology teacher. Maxxie (Mitch Hewer) is Anwar’s best mate, who also happens to be an openly gay dancer.
Hoult is the only recognizable face to US audiences, and Tony is a complete 180 degrees from his character in About a Boy. He succeeds though in portraying a confident and manipulative asshole. Most of the others are equally impressive, with the standouts being Bailey and Murray. He brings a perfect balance of comic timing and pathos to Sid, and she gives Cassie a combination of surface ditziness and an odd inner brilliance. Patel and Dempsie occasionally veer too close to playing it over the top as Anwar and Chris, but for the most part they convince and entertain. Least successful is Hewer as Maxxie. I suspect he was hired more for his authentic dance skills and sexual preferences and less for his acting abilities.
You’d be forgiven for thinking the show is nothing more than a mild curiosity after only the first episode, but the characters quickly take hold as the series continues. Cassie the anorexic (which is the one-note label she’d have on almost any other teen drama) becomes three dimensional as we watch her struggle, see her heart and the faith she has in those around her, and become mesmerized by her wide eyes and giant tooth-filled smile. Chris the party animal comes crashing down to earth (and a brief sobriety) when he wakes one day to realize his mother has abandoned him and his estranged father has no interest in a reunion. Anwar the Muslim is serious about his faith, he prays five times a day, but he can’t help but feel conflicted when it comes to both his raging hormones and his religion’s hardliner stance on his friend’s homosexuality.
Storylines big and small weave from one episode to the next with no tidy wrap-ups or easy conclusions. Each character is given time to shine and all of them succeed to varying degrees. Season one lasts only nine episodes, but in that brief time I found myself drawn into their lives, laughing with them, yelling at them, and identifying with them. Not all the plots are equally engaging, and the show does seem to focus more on the quartet of Tony, Sid, Michelle, and Cassie, but you won’t go long without something catching your interest or your eye. Some critics have charged the show with exaggerated scenarios and to be sure, that accuasation is occasionally accurate. An early car theft that ends in the river and a trip to Russia later in the season both reek of low believability, but they’re exceptions to the rule. Teens do fuck around. They will put anything with an FDA label or a pulse into their mouths. They do act first and think second, if at all. The rare foray into pure fiction still entertains though, even if it doesn’t add to the weight of the show.
While “Skins” is ostensibly a drama, it’s more akin to “Californication” in it’s balance of serious issues and comedy. Situations and dialogue alike ring true and you’ll find yourself laughing along with (or at) the characters and their daily misadventures. Who hasn’t woken up with a stiffie and walked bleary-eyed to the bathroom only to pee on the wall because you weren’t aiming down? (Seriously, it’s not just me right?) Physical appearances are also realistic in ways most teen dramas would never dare to be. Michelle, the self-acknowledged prettiest girl in town, is cute… but her profile reveals odd and glaringly distracting ridges on the sides of her nose. Far from perfect. Several of the characters have obvious pimples (gasp!) that would be airbrushed out of any other show, unless the zit was itself a plot point of course. And the nudity… let’s just say there’s attractive naked flesh and then there are real people… “Skins” shows both.
If you have BBC America I highly recommend checking out “Skins.” If you don’t, then I’d recommend renting or even buying the DVD. It’s the unholy spawn of “Californication” and “Dawson’s Creek”, raunchy heart and intelligent dialogue combined to remind you of your own teen years… for better or worse. The show is funny, touching, and often surprising. Season two continues the storylines of the teens above, but they’re being replaced for the upcoming season three. So no “Lost” or “BSG” level of commitment is necessary here… two seasons and you’re done.
“Skins Volume 1” comes out January 13th from BBC Video. In addition to the nine Series One episodes, there are video diary segments and almost an hour of additional footage that originally aired online as webisodes.